Of Cabdrivers and Passengers:

Lima, Peru


May 29, 2004


The cabdriver kept glancing at me thru the rearview mirror as he drove to the Cuzco International Airport. I guess he finally concluded that I was indeed Asian, and then made what I thought was an unusual request. “Podria decir el Chino que el tiene que regresar por aca. La gestion del Cholo es un desastre.” (“Please tell the Chinaman to come back here. The Country Boy’s administration is a disaster.”)


Despite his Japanese ancestry, Alberto Fujimori, Peru former president is popularly known as “El Chino.” There is nothing racist or pejorative about this term; it is simply descriptive. I am told that even Fujimori used a popular song that kept repeating the term “Chino” when he first ran for president. I, too am often called “Chino” though I am Filipino.


And despite his graduate degree from a North American university and having lived in the West for decades, Alejandro Toledo, Peru’s current president, is popularly known as “El Cholo,” a recognition of his indigenous and rural origins. I am also told that he played the indigenous card to the hilt when he ran for the presidency.


But before I could ask the cabbie why he made the unusual request, he proceeded to tell me that I was smart to leave Cuzco very early in the morning (6:00 AM). He added that the city would close down at 8:00 AM, that all transport would halt, and none of the shops would open. The roads in and out of the city would be blockaded. I forgot my initial question and asked why the stoppage.


He said it was to protest the economic policies of the president, his uncompleted campaign promises of more jobs, the growing ungovernability, the corruption, the increase in the price of basic commodities. But the immediate cause was the increase in the price of gasoline which he rightly said would cause the price of everything to rise. Almost as an afterthought, he added that it was also in support of the people of Ilave. So on May 27, 2004, the city of Cuzco closed down.


Ilave is a small town near the Bolivian border. Last April 26, the townspeople accused the mayor of corruption and held a massive demonstration which ended in the lynching of the mayor. The government responded by arresting and detaining several suspected leaders of the demonstrators. The townspeople, in turn, responded to the arrests by blockading the highway from Ilave to Yunguyo which is one of the main entry points to Bolivia.


Initially, the blockade covered 5 kilometers. When I crossed over the Bolivian border to Peru, on May 23, the blockade was extended to 10 kilometers. Tourists and others crossing into Bolivia had to disembark from buses, carry their luggage and walk all the way past the town of Ilave with its trashed police outposts. At the edge of the town, dozens of riot police milled about unable to enter the town zealously guarded by the residents. The rest of the town council had resigned for fear of their lives. Ilave was in the hands of its villagers.


By May 28, the blockade included the town of Desaguadero which is the only other route to Bolivia. The border was effectively sealed and the issue went beyond corruption to include years of government neglect of the region and uncompleted presidential campaign promises. The protest movement had also extended to the entire region of Collao and the demand now included the resignation of the president. Ilave became the center of protest by Aymara peasants in the region.


Not long after, in the region of Ancash, students, professionals and members of civic organizations also blockaded several kilometers of the Northern Pan-American Highway. Even the provincial chief joined the protestors. They, too demanded that the Toledo government make good its campaign promises.


The question why someone would want a discredited president now a fugitive in Japan to return to Peru swirled in my head during the flight to Lima. So it was up to the cabbie in Lima who drove me to my hotel to fill the gap left by his colleague in Cuzco. This cabbie explained that there are two periods in the Fujimori presidency. During the first, El Chino was able to control the runaway inflation which was a great relief to Peruvians. He launched an infrastructure program that saw many roads constructed and schools built by the government. The rebellion centered in Ayacucho led by the Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) guerrillas was put down, though with brutality and many human rights violations.


It was during the Second Period of the Fujimori presidency according to the Lima cabbie that things started to go wrong. Labor leaders were “disappeared.” Fujimori’s intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos used government resources to extort and engage in large scale corruption. The latter was caught on videotape. Though there was no direct evidence implicating Fujimori, the word on the street was that, ultimately, he was responsible. Fujimori had become authoritarian.


Using an official trip to the Philippines as a pretext, Fujimori fled to his ancestor’s home country. To this day, he lives in Japan. Ironically, his wife, Susana, was elected to the parliament. The Peruvian government hired a US based investigating agency to track down the hidden wealth of the Fujimoris. Millions of dollars in fees later, the private investigating agency found nothing.


But now Peruvians level the very same accusations against the government led by Alejandro Toledo. They mention, among other things, a fishing company owned by a friend of the president going over the allowed limits of fishing in Peruvian waters to the disadvantage of ordinary fisherfolks. Never mind that he fathered a child by another woman while married to Eliane Karp. Apparently, sexual peccadilloes are accepted by the populace as in my own Philippines.


But the thousands who rallied in front of the Peruvian parliament last May 26 could not accept broken campaign promises, rising unemployment, privatization of public industries, and corruption. This was an angry crowd who burnt the effigies of the president and his first lady. They were demanding the convocation of a constituent assembly.


The following day, the president announced more stringent measures to contain the public protests. Blockading of roads would be met with force; using clothes resembling police or military uniforms was now a criminal offense. Poles holding up placards of protest would not be allowed.


I arrived in Lima in time to witness another group of protestors assembled in front of the parliament building. Construction workers wearing hardhats of different colors and defying the prohibition on using poles to hold up placards marched in the thousands carrying poles without placards, clubs, and quite a few chose iron bars. The riot police tensely watched the angry crowd. But their commanders chose to be more prudent than confrontational and allowed the open defiance of the presidential order.


Elsewhere another group of discontented Peruvians continued with their protest against the government program to eradicate coca. “La hoja milenaria,” which they say is the “leaf of the ages” (my poor translation) that has helped them still the pangs of hunger and given them energy to carry on beyond normal endurance, should not be wiped out but “industrialized.”


Coca leaves, according to Peruvians (and, I might add, Bolivians and Ecuadorians) is not a drug. When processed, it is turned into cocaine which I am told is not available and not used in this country. It is legal and readily available in markets. President Alejandro Toledo has agreed to the US proposal to stop coca production.


The coca farmers — cocaleros — have been staging various protest actions for a couple of months. They brought their protest to Lima last April with nothing to show for it except the arrest of their leader. But others have stepped in to fill the void. The feisty Elsa Malpartida now leads the cocaleros and accuses the Toledo government of giving in to the United States by instituting this crop eradication program.


Toledo, in turn is accusing the cocaleros of being traffickers of narcotics. Tradition versus subservience?


Another group that has withdrawn its recognition of the Toledo government is the Coordinadora Nacional de Frentes Regionales. At the center of their discontent is the neoliberal economic model that the government has adopted. They claim that this economic model gutted the social programs (e.g. education, health, and social welfare). They strongly oppose the privatization of Petroperu and other public corporations. This neoliberal model, according to the Coordinadora, has made Peru more dependent on international market forces over which they have no control.

“El mandatario fue elegido legalmente, pero su gestion ya es ilegitima” (“The president was legally elected but his administration has become illegitimate.”) So claims Efrain Concha, the Frente coordinator for the Cuzco region. The neoliberal economic program, he claims, has led to the pauperization of Peruvians and had deepened the dependency status of the country.

The Frentes Regionales or the Regional Fronts are composed of different civil society groups in every region. During their last meeting in Cuzco on May 22, they proposed the convocation of a constituent assembly. They also announced a work stoppage on July 14 to “stop the privatization of the national patrimony, defend human rights and demand that regions receive a fair share of the national budget, increased public works in the regions.”

They scoff at opposition political parties accusing politicians such as former president Alan Garcia of the APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionario de Americas), Lourdes Flores of Unidad Nacional, and Valentin Paniagua of Accion Popular of merely wanting a share in power rather than demanding change. They use the term “opposition light” to ridicule these political parties. The distrust of political parties seeps down to ordinary people.  According to my Lima cabdriver, the practice of politics by the traditional political parties was “la engañada de la gente” or “the deception of the people.”


I asked an Aymara delegate to  the Cuzco conference why he opposed the president who is also an indigena like him. He snorted and said “Ya ha perdido su alma indigena. El es bien agringado.” (“He has already lost his indigenous soul. He is well “gringo-ized.”) As if to drive home his point, he mentions that Toledo‘s wife, Eliane Karp, is a foreigner. Karp appears to be unpopular with ordinary Peruvians not because she is a foreigner as much as her penchant for conspicuous consumption..

This past April on the bus to Bolivia, I was fortunate to be seated next to Alicia (not her real name), a medical doctor working in the rural areas. I experienced by first bout with “soroche” or “altitude sickness,” a common malady of lowlanders crossing the Andean highlands. At our next stop, she handed me a cup of “mate de coca,” which stopped the headache and the nausea but would have landed me in jail in North America.


It was also at this point that a young man boarded the same bus and started passing out pieces of caramel candy to passengers. Unfamiliar with the practice, Alicia explained that the young man was soliciting contributions from passengers to finance his trip to the next town where he hoped to find a job. According to her, 40% of the labor force is either unemployed or underemployed.


Though Alicia could get a better paying job in Lima or Arequipa or any of the big cities she chose to work among the Aymara people in the Andes. She receives US $400. a month practicing rural medicine. Children of the Aymara indigenous group, she said with great sadness, were dying of diarrhea, chicken pox, and other curable diseases. If only, she hoped, the government would provide potable water and some rudimentary health care, the Aymara children in her area would have a better chance of survival. With a smile, she handed a few soles (Peruvian currency) to the young man selling caramel candy.


In the newspaper today, I read that in a recent survey, Alejandro Toledo earned only a 6% approval rating and a 91% disapproval rating (plus or minus 3% deviation). Taking all these into account, I understand the cabbie’s request for the return of El Chino, but is it the solution to Peru‘s problems?



Chibu Lagman teaches sociology and Latin American Studies at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada. While doing graduate work, Chibu drove for the member owned Union Cab Company of Madison, Wisconsin.

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